Zombie Conversion

How much fun can you have with a Zombie conversion using Photoshop Elements?

A lot - that's how much! 

Normally we take a portrait and try to glamorize it by smoothing the skin, removing any blemishes and enhancing the eyes.  This is the antithesis of glamorizing - we're going to distress and mangle the photo to produce something quite different. 

Imagine - working with a great shot of your favorite buddy or significant other and showing them how they would look as one of the living dead, a mobile corpse, a reanimated cadaver.

In researching the tutorial I found as many different methods and procedures as there are zombie looks.

This is not a simple, straight forward or quick technique with Photoshop Elements and it will make use of many different techniques and dialogues - more on that in the next section.  

The first thing to remember is to save your work regularly.  Save your work as a Photoshop File (.psd) and make sure that the following items on the Save As dialogue are checked ...

  1. Organizer:  Save In Version Set With Original
  2. Save:  Layers

Each time you save this way the previously saved file won't be over written and all of the layers will remain intact - a new file will be created so you can go back to any step if you don't like where the project is going.

If you make half as many mistakes as I do you will be glad you have the full document with layers as a backup! 

Zombie Tools and Techniques

As mentioned previously, this zombie conversion will make use of a lot of different Photoshop Elements techniques, including ...

  • Layers
  • Layer Masks
  • Adjustment Layers
  • Clipping Layers
  • Merging Layers
  • Displace Filter
  • Blend Modes
  • Selections
  • Dodging and Burning
  • New File For ...
  • Painting with your Wacom pen

If any of these techniques cause you shudder in fear just hang in there.  Every step will be thoroughly explained - in great detail. 

The transformation will take place in this order - you can jump to the section you need if this a project over a few days ...

  1. Skin
  2. Eyes
  3. Mouth
  4. Teeth and Lips
  5. Finishing Touches

This is the picture we are going to zombify ... 

Step One - The Skin

When all is said and done when these two gals have been converted to the living dead or mobile cadavers they won't have nice rosy cheeks - their skin will be pasty and lacking anything approaching life.

To achieve the look we need to select the skin, put it on a new layer and then do some adjustments.

The best method to select the skin on the face is with a Wacom pen and the Selection Brush Tool.  If you prefer another selection tool then use that one.

The tool isn't important - creating the selection is what matters.

If your image has hands or arms make sure to select them as well.

If there are stray strands of hair over the face don't worry too much about them.

When the selection is complete with the Selection Brush tool click on one of the other selection tools and the marching ants will appear.

The selection has to be reversed (Select > Inverse) and then the selection has to be promoted to a new layer with Ctrl-J (Windows) or Cmd-J (Mac). 

This will give you the skin on its own layer ... 

Save Your Work!

Now we can do some adjustments to remove the healthy skin glow and start to create that unhealthy walking dead look.

Activate the skin layer and add a new Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer.

Decrease the Saturation to remove the color.  Here's how things look now ... 

The Adjustment
Saturation Slider moved to -100

The Result

Confine The Adjustment To The Skin Only - With a Clipping Mask

What the Hue and Saturation adjustment did is desaturate the entire image but we only want the skin portion desaturated - this calls for one of the really useful Photoshop Elements techniques - it's called Create Clipping Mask.

What a Clipping Mask does is apply the adjustment to the layer immediately below the adjustment layer only - how fabulous is that? 

To create a Clipping Mask either select Layers > Create Clipping Mask or put your cursor on the line separating the adjustment layer and the layer below it, press the ALT key and tap with you pen or left click.

The Adjustment Layer (Hue and Saturation in this case) will indent itself to the right and the adjustment will only be visible on the skin.

Isn't that great?

Not Clipped


As you can see the desaturation has only been applied to the skin of the two young gals while the rest of the image still has its color.

There's one more thing to do before we move onto the next step and that is to merge the Hue and Saturation Adjustment layer and the Skin layer.

Activate the Hue and Saturation layer and then go to Layers > Merge Down (Ctrl-E or Cmd-E).  Give the merged layer a name so you can find it quickly and easily. 

Add Some Color

It may seem counter intuitive but this is where we'll add a bit of color to the skin. 

Activate the Merged Skin layer and then add a new layer, change its blend mode to Color and clip (Clipping Mask) it to the Skin layer just like you did in the previous step.

Now select a really light blue or really light green (or any color you want) and paint over the skin on the layer with your Wacom pen and the Brush Tool.

In my example I used a light blue for the big Zombie gal on one layer in front and a light green for the little one on another layer at the back.

This is a really subtle change over the simple desaturation but it is effective.

When you are finished painting then Merge Down the painting layer onto the Skin Layer.

Here's how things are looking now ...

Things are coming along nicely but we still have some work to do.

Save Your Work! 

Distressing The Skin

Our conversion to this point is fine, however if you look at the last screen shot you may think we're doing a zombie glamour shot.  Not so, even though our main zombie gal still has perfect bone structure - let's do something about that.

Displace Filter

This filter let's you apply one image into another.  You don't actually see the second image - just the result.

For our purposes a nice broken pattern of some sort will work perfectly.

Here are two examples ...

This one was created on a new document using Filter > Render > Clouds with black and white as the foreground and background colors. 

  1. File > New > Default Elements Size.
  2. Filter > Render > Clouds.
  3. Save As > Clouds and use Photoshop (.PSD) as the file type - this is important!

Now we can displace our photograph using the file clouds.psd.

To do that ...

  1. Close the Clouds document and make sure the image you are converting is in the work space and the skin layer is selected.

  2. Select Filter > Distort > Displace ... and this dialogue will come up ...

  3. Click OK and navigate to the file that contains your clouds document (if you can't see it then perhaps you saved it as something other than .psd - this filter cannot see .jpg files).  Incidentally - Elements includes a number of displacement maps.  When you click OK in the Displace dialogue you will have to navigate to Displacement Maps in the Elements Plug-Ins folder.

  4. When you find the file click OK and watch what happens ...

Now that's probably more like the living dead would look, don't you think?

You can use any image as the Displacement Map and it's probably a good idea to play around with the settings to find something that's zombie-ish.

Save Your Work! 

Adding Texture

The next thing to do is distort the skin a bit more and there are lots of yucky and disgusting modifications you can make here. 

In researching the tutorial I came across this pattern (and an invitation to download it as well).

The pattern was in color so I changed it to black and white because I didn't want any healthy looking colors on my mobile cadavers!

After converting the pattern to black and white the working image was selected, the skin layer activated and then the pattern (outlined in red below) was dragged from the Project bin onto the working image.

The pattern had to be re-sized with the Move Tool - it was necessary to make sure that the pattern covered the skin layer of the bigger one in front.

Once it covered all of the face on the left the Blend Mode of the pattern layer was changed to Overlay, the layer was clipped to the skin layer (remember how to do that?) and the Opacity of the layer was lowered.

The crack pattern was once again dragged above the skin layer and it was reduced in size so that it just covered the skin of the little zombie on the right - the skin cracks could not be the same size on both faces - that's why it was done twice.

Clip this layer to the skin layer and Merge Down

Here's how our two creatures look now ... 

Save Your Work! 

Removing Unwanted Color

Before starting on the eyes it was necessary to take a good look at the overall result so far.  For instance, the Displace Filter did what it should do - it displaced the skin layer and this allowed some of the Background Copy layer color to show through.

To eliminate the unwanted color add a Hue and Saturation layer above the Background Copy and move the Saturation slider to the left until the color is gone. 

This will de-saturate all of the Background Copy and there are some parts that need to retain their original color - like the sweater and maybe the lips.

The Hue and Saturation layer comes with its own Layer Mask so that can be used to bring back the color where it is needed.

Select Black as the foreground color, make sure the Layer Mask is selected and paint in the color where it's needed.

Step Two - Making The Eyes All Pasty

No self respecting mobile cadaver is going to have nice blue or brown or green eyes.  It just won't happen.

There are many things that can be done to create some nice creepy zombie eyes but perhaps the easiest is to modify them with the Dodge and Burn tools. 

The starting point is to select the eyes the same way the skin was selected - with the Selection Brush Tool on the Background Copy layer.  The selection is much easier to complete and more accurate with a Wacom tablet and pen.

Both the eyes of the front gal were painted with the Selection Brush tool.

When the selection is complete then promote the selection to it's own layer.  If you're working with more than one person you can put all of the eyes on one layer or create a different layer for each eye - whichever is more convenient.  

In this conversion each pair of eyes had their own layer.

With the eyes layer activated (as shown in the layers palette) zoom in tight on the eyes and grab the dodge tool.

The Setting for the Dodge Tool is ...

  • Range:  Mid-Tones
  • Exposure:  56%

The Setting for the Burn Tool is ...

  • Range:  Mid-Tones
  • Exposure:  50%

This is one of the times when having a new Window for the image is really useful (Window > New Window For ... your file name).  This is a screen shot of my screen ... 

The left half of the screen
shows the full size image.

The right half of the screen
shows one eye zoomed in.

The areas that were dodged (lightened) are the whites of the eyes and the iris of each eye.  

The areas that were burned (darkened) are outside of the eyes - kind of like someone went crazy with eye liner.

As you work on the zoomed in portion the result can be seen on the large version in real time - really cool.

As you work with the Dodge and Burn tools remember that less is more.  The first few times I did this the results were somewhat ridiculous - jet black around the eyes and pure white in the eyes.  They looked silly.

Working with a second window opened made a huge difference.

Just for the curious - here's a close up of the eyes after dodging and burning ... 

The same procedure was used for the zombie in the background and here are how things look now ... 

Save Your Work! 

Step Three - The Mouth

With our zombies it'll be difficult to pry open their mouths so something else needs to be done.

The best solution is to find a portrait of someone with their mouth open and use that. 

Here's the one I chose.  It was originally attached to a Marilyn look-alike who was prowling the strip in Las Vegas.  She was hanging with an Elvis look alike and you could have your picture taken with them for a financial consideration - but that's all beside the point, isn't it? 

OK - so this is what to do.  Load your mouth (he he) above the skin layer.  It will likely be either too small or way to big and will require some modification.

Select the Move Tool and resize the mouth so that it covers the original and make sure it's where it should be.

Now it's time to make it look zombie-ish ... 

My replacement mouth is now in place and looks really dumb because it has the original skin from the Marilyn picture.  That was eliminated by using the Eraser Tool to get rid of the original skin.  Zoom in close and carefully erase everything outside the lips.

Now that's better but it doesn't fit the existing look of the zombie so that's the next thing that needs to be addressed.

Step Four - Teeth and Lips

The teeth and the tongue are just not nasty enough.  Make sure the mouth layer is activated, grab your Wacom pen,  the Quick Selection Brush and carefully paint in the tongue and teeth. 

The spaces between the teeth were painted in and the perfect shape of the teeth was modified as well.  This will give them a better zombie look in the next step.

After you finish painting in the area to be modified, click on another selection tool to get the marching ants and then Select > Inverse.  Now the selection can be modified.

Add a Hue and Saturation Layer above the mouth layer and then ...

  1. move the Saturation slider to the left,
  2. and move the Lightness slider to the left

This is how things look after this adjustment ... 

That looks better but the lips are the wrong color so that's the next step ...

The Lips

The lips are a bit too red, don't you think?

Just like the skin and the eyes, the lips were selected with the Quick Selection Brush and promoted to a new layer.

A Hue and Saturation Adjustment layer was added above the lips layer and the Saturation Slider was moved to the left, which slightly desaturated the lips.  When it looked OK, the Hue and Saturation layer was clipped to the lips layer. 

Save Your Work! 

Review - Oops

After all of these adjustments were made I noticed the skin of our two zombies were much whiter than I wanted - it seems the painting of the skin layer way back at the beginning had disappeared.

Other than starting all over again, the best solution seemed to be to find the skin layer and add a new blank layer set to Color blend mode directly above it and paint in the light blue and light green one more time.

The new layer was clipped to the skin layer and here is the result ... 

That's Better!

Zombie Finishing Touches

There are many thing that can be added to personalize the zombie conversion. 

Blood Brushes

How about a bit of blood using blood brushes that were found on-line and downloaded?

Just do a search for Blood Brushes and you'ill find a lots of them.

There are two different sets used here and the blood was added on blank layers at the top of the layers palette.

It was necessary to mess around with the layer blend modes to find the one that worked the best.

The big blood spot under the front zombie's mouth was on its own layer set to Multiply.

The rest were on another layer set to Color Blend Mode.

Now this looks OK but one more thing will make a big difference and that is to add some Lighting Effects.

Lighting Effects

Adding some lighting effects to the zombie conversion will provide some nice atmosphere.

The Lighting Effects are found in Filter > Render > Lighting Effects and this is the dialogue that will appear.

The Style drop-down box contains 17 different lighting effects and after trying most of them the one that seems to be the most suitable to properly display our zombie gals is Flashlight.

Once it is chosen open the Light Type dialogue and choose one of the three types available.  This one is Omni.

The sliders on the bottom portion of the dialogue provide a lot of different adjustments and even allow you to change the color of the lighting.

Here are two different lighting effects with different exposure settings ... 

Zombie Exposure 0.
Zombie Exposure -26.

 Exposure Setting at 0 

 Exposure Setting at -26

Just imagine - you hear a strange noise outside and the neighborhood dogs are howling and barking.  Puzzled by the cacophony of noise you grab your flashlight and venture into the dark night to find out just the heck what is going on out there.

It's very dark out there as you swing your flashlight back and forth.  Suddenly you sense motion and a scuttling sound off to one side.

As you swing your flashlight toward the noise the light pans across something so you swing the light back and there they are closing in on you ...

OK - so my story is kind of lame. 

The Last Step

Like all parts of the instructions for the zombie conversion, this step is also optional.

You can use different fonts and layer styles to spruce up the font and maybe a frame with a bevel added  ...

This is a long tutorial and it will take some time to complete - I worked on it off and on for a few weeks.

Make sure to save your work as a .psd (Photoshop) file to keep all of your layers intact and have some fun with it ...! 

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